CHAPTER 24: A*SOLUTION

 It wasn’t the first time a woman had slammed a door in my face, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to be the last, but I wasn’t prepared to give up without a fight. I went looking for her at the club with a Riot Fest pass in hand as a peace offering.

“I told you, she’s not working tonight!” Evelyn said in exasperation after I’d pestered her for almost an hour. “You’re obsessed.”

“I am not.”

“You are.” Evelyn insisted. She filled a pitcher in the bar’s sink. The water smelled like iron. The whole bar area smelled like stale blood. It was a Wednesday night and if Melody was working then she was doing a good job of avoiding me. “C’mon, you wouldn’t be hanging around if it was anybody else and you found out they had kids: you hate kids.”

“I don’t hate kids; I’m just not looking to be anybody’s daddy. You know—unless they’re over eighteen and into that kind of thing.”

“Damnit, you’re hopeless.” Evelyn kicked aside one of the rubber floor mats and poured the water down a drain in front of the coolers. “She works when she wants to work. I usually don’t see her till the weekend.”

I cursed inwardly: if I couldn’t give the pass to Melody, then my second plan was to give it to Evelyn to give to Melody but by the weekend it would be too late.

“You got change, lady?” Father Mohawk sidled up to the bar beside me and plunked a metal coffee can down on the countertop. He peeled off the plastic lid and pull out a wad of singles which he smoothed into stacks on the bar in front of him. His lips moved silently as he counted, and the dollar store rosary around his wrist clinked against the lip of the can every time he reached inside for another wad.

“Who the hell comes into a strip club with a coffee can full of singles and exchanges it for twenties?” I asked. I picked up one of the stacks of bills and flipped through it, momentarily distracted from the Great Melody Dilemma.

“Play nice,” Evelyn said. She snatched the cash out of my hand and re-counted the bills before sliding a handful of twenties across the bar to Father Mohawk who bundled them with a rubber band and tucked them into a pocket.

“I’m buildin’ a church,” he said.

“That’s a good one, tell me another.”

“It’s true!”

“So, you’re really a priest?”

“Yup.” Father Mohawk glanced at me sideways and grinned like a little kid who was up to no good. “Well, almost. I haven’t been ordained yet. Soon, though, I hope.” He stuck out a hand. “Jesse. Father Jesse.”

Father. That was rich. He was younger than me.

“Damen—”

“—Warner. From OXBVI.”

“That’s right.”

“Imma fan… God, sorry, I’ve been trying to be cool, but…” Jesse struggled to suppress the keening delight he’d been bottling up for some time now.

“What the hell is a priest doing in a strip club?”

“Confession,” he grinned. “Where better ‘n here, right? Come for the titties, leave with the Holy Spirit. One stop shop.”

“Good work if you can get it,” I said. Based on the wad of twenties he’d shoved down the side of his kilt, business was booming. “Just how much does a confession go for these days?”

“Oh, it’s free. Strictly donations. You wanna try it? Confession, I mean?” It wasn’t a question so much as an invitation.

“I’m good,” I said.

“Are you?”

“I’m not Catholic.”

“You don’t have to be; I’ll still help you.” Father Jesse pushed himself away from the bar and nodded toward the hallway leading to the bathrooms with a jerk of his head. “C’mon, I’ll show you how it works—in case you change your mind.” He tucked the coffee can under his arm and loped off down the corridor without waiting to see if I was following him. I glanced at Evelyn who stared back, interested to see what I would do.

“Is this guy for real?” I asked.

She just shrugged. “One way to find out.”

Feeling self-conscious, I shuffled down the hall. Father Jesse waited beside a door that led to what seemed to be a storage closet. He pushed it open as I approached and ducked inside, the tips of his hair brushing against the top of the door frame.

“It’s a bit tight,” he said. “Just squeeze in.”

“That’s what she said.”

The storage closet was half occupied by a grinding row of refrigerators full of pop for the bar, pumping hot air into the closed room. What wasn’t taken up by the drinks cases was filled with cardboard boxes and cleaning supplies. Father Jesse gestured me toward a broken dance booth propped in a corner. The plush sidewall was marred by a fist-sized hole that had been clawed through the upholstery and fiberboard at about waist height. I took a seat and did my best to get comfortable. I could see Father Jesse through the hole doing his best to arrange his long limbs in a folding chair wedged between the booth and the wall. There was a flurry of thuds and a muffled swear and then he settled into silence.

The room was womb-like in its warmth. I could hear the thudding bassline of the music outside but the booth smothered it into a muted heartbeat that felt strangely cozy.

“So, this is confession,” I said.

“Yep. This is it.”

“How’d you end up here? With all this?” I gestured to the booth around me, remembering too late he probably couldn’t see me.

“Convent next door—the seminary sent me there to serve—I think they hoped the nuns would get me in line, with the hair and the clothes an’ all. Didn’t work, obviously.”

“Obviously.”

“Almost made me quit, though. Walked out one day thinking maybe I’d made a mistake—like I’d gotten The Call but it had been meant for someone else, right? An’ I ran into Rocco on my way out—you know Rocco? The floor host? Big guy with the shaved head? We were buddies growing up—had the same foster parents for a while, an’ he brought me here, an’ there was Camille—” I heard him laugh through his nose. “Dressed as a Catholic school girl, can you imagine? An’ me with the collar—she thought it was a fetish thing. An’ well, you know, Camille being Camille…”

“She made you see God?”

“Ha. She certainly tried. D’you know she has a law degree? Not that you’d guess it to look at her. Maybe it’s why we get along. A lawyer that doesn’t look like a lawyer an’ a priest that doesn’t look like a priest.”

“The club doesn’t mind?”

I heard a jingle as he shrugged. “I pay house—tip out Rocco and Judge, just like the dancers. The girls seem to like it—some of the patrons too, an’ I do my best to keep the nuns off their back. Kinda works out.”

I shook my head: reality was sure as hell stranger than fiction.

“So, what brings you here?” Father Jesse asked.

“Pussy.”

“Okay, yeah, besides that.”

“My sister’s the bartender.”

“Eden, right?”

“Evel—”

Lalalalalala—she goes by Eden here. Okay? I don’t need her real name. I’m here t’ be a… whatsit called? You know, someone you can tell stuff? Like a secret? An’ they gotta keep it to themselves?”

“Confidante?” I supplied.

Con-FYE-dent.

“That’s the one: confidante. What you say to me, you’re saying to God.”

“In that case, fuck you,” I said.

Father Jesse laughed and it sounded like he meant it. “Okay, cool. What else?”

“What’s the deal with the platypus?”

“Right?”

I poked a finger into the hole in the wall as I tried to imagine telling all my darkest personal failings to this weird punk kid. Loose pills of stuffing spilled out through the torn fabric and crumbling particleboard.

“Hang on, is this a glory hole?” I said, realizing what I was looking at. I yanked my hand back like I’d been burned.

Father Jesse laughed. “Yeah, probably. Helps me hear, though. Too many concerts and I’m mostly deaf. You know how it is.”

“Yeah, okay, well, I’m not gonna whisper my secrets into a dick socket.”

“Fair enough.” Jesse retrieved his coffee can and stood up. He emerged from behind the padded wall and gestured toward the door. “Listen, I’m around if you change your mind.” He was smiling, but his eyes were serious. “Doesn’t hafta be confession. Not every problem gets solved with absolution. Some of ‘em just need a-solution.”

Puns. Truly the sign of a deranged mind.

I stepped back out into the comfortable anonymity of an ear-splitting R&B bassline and a thought occurred to me: “D’you know a dancer called Melody?” I shouted.

“Sure.”

“You know if she’s working tonight?”

“Haven’t seen her.” Father Jesse stopped me short in the middle of the hallway with a hand on my chest. “I’m not gonna tell you her secrets: her name, when she works, her number, whatever. She wants you to know she’ll tell you herself.”

“Yeah, no—I know,” I said. “I already—I—we been kinda seeing each other. I just found out she has a kid—I wanna tell her I don’t care, but she’s been avoiding me—” The words spilled out of me before I could stop them. Father Jesse just waited, listening. “This is stupid. I’m stupid. Sorry…”

“’S not stupid,” Father Jesse said. “You’re keen on her—I see that. She’s keepin’ you at arm’s length. She maybe needs the space to feel safe, y’know? You chase her down you’re gonna chase her away. Let her come to you.”

 I pulled the Riot Fest pass out of my pocket and stared at it, feeling like a moron.

“Anyway, I brought her a pass. We’re playing Riot Fest—she said she’d come if I got her a pass, but…well…”

“You wanna give it to me? I’ll make sure she gets it.”

“Can I trust you?”

“I don’t know, can you?” He smiled, but it wasn’t a joke. “That’s the thing about faith, brother, y’never know if you get it right till afterwards. Sometimes you just gotta take the leap and hope for the best.” He peeled the lid off the coffee can and held it out to me. I stared at the open maw of it: waiting for my offering.

Take the leap. Hope for the best…

I dropped the pass inside.

New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!

CHAPTER 25: RIOT FEST will go live Monday, December 13th , 2021

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CHAPTER 23: THE GIRL CHILD

There were only two seasons in Chicago: winter, and construction. Construction season was in full swing along Route 41 where the pavement had been ground down to a tooth-rattling sub-layer in preparation for re-surfacing. By the time I passed the Botanic Gardens, my arms were numb from the vibrations. I waved as I passed, thinking about Evelyn: I hadn’t seen her since Mom’s big news and I wondered how she was taking it. Since I had to go through Evanston on my way home anyway, I figured I might as well stop in and say hi.

Evelyn’s house was a Chicago bungalow with a glassed-in porch. I recognized her Honda Accord parked in the driveway with a Northwestern sticker in the back window. I climbed the steps to her front door and beat on it until I heard footsteps approaching. A bolt turned and Evelyn’s face appeared at a crack in the door. The aroma of baking cookies drifted out.

“Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” I said.

“Damen!” her astonishment was real. “What are you doing here?”

“I was in the area. Thought I’d stop by. Can I come in?”

Evelyn hesitated. “I’m babysitting…”

“I’ll be on my best behavior.”

Reluctantly, she stepped aside to let me into a living room furnished with Ikea furniture and botany textbooks. Eclectic. Cozy. The living room was decorated with Georgia O’Keefe prints and illustrations of various plants. I recognized the print of a cow skull Evelyn had once sent to me as a postcard. I had it tattooed on my back. A pair of cats, one golden and tabby, one all black, watched me from a sunny spot in the middle of the floor, sprawled out luxuriously. The two of them blinked golden eyes in my direction, deeming my presence acceptable.

“Nice place you got here.”

A timer went off in the kitchen, followed by the piping of a child’s voice.

“Evie! The timer went off!”

“I’m coming,” Evelyn shuffled toward the kitchen.

I kicked off my flip-flops beside a miniature pair of Converse sneakers and followed her into the kitchen in bare feet.

The kitchen was on the sunny side of the house. Evelyn was bent over the oven helping a five-year-old lift out a tray of steaming cookies. With intense concentration, the girl guided the cookie sheet onto the stovetop, both arms embedded in oven mitts up to her elbows.

 “Good job.” Evelyn closed the oven door and shut off the gas. The little girl turned to stare at me, unabashedly.

“Why is your hair blue?” she wanted to know.

“It’s my favorite color.”

“Blue is okay. I like yellow better,” she grinned, showing a gap in her bottom teeth where a baby tooth had fallen out. “What’s wrong with your face?”

I looked at Evelyn. “I like this kid.” I made myself comfortable at the table to get closer to her height. “So, this one time I went fishing, right? And this biiiig fish started biting and it just took off! And I fell over face first in the tackle box.” I demonstrated this, bashing my face toward the table and slapping the tabletop with a bang. The girl jumped and squealed in delight. I brought my face up, eyes crossed. “It’s been like this ever since.”

“No!” she squealed. “That’s not true!”

“Yes, it is!”

“No, it’s not!”

“You callin’ me a liar?”

“Yes!” She scrambled up on a chair next to me and put her hands over her head. Evelyn retrieved the oven mitts and began scooping cookies onto a cooling rack.

“I have my ears pierced,” she said, showing me two tiny baby studs, one in each earlobe.

“Oh yeah? Well, I have my tongue pierced.” I stuck out my tongue to show her. She giggled and stuck out her own tongue.

“Oh yeah?” she said. “Well, I can do this.” She stuck out her tongue and touched it to the tip of her nose.

“You win. If I could do that, I’d have a girlfriend.” The implication of this went over her head, but I heard Evelyn choke on her coffee.

“What’s your name, Girl Child?”

“Vico. It’s short for Victoria. What’s your name?”

“Damen. Short for Damen. Evie’s my sister.”

“I like Evie.”

“Me too.”

Evelyn put a plate of cookies down on the table and I helped myself to one. They were still warm.

“When did you become so domesticated?” I asked.

“Please, it’s store-bought dough.”

“Can I have one?” the Girl Child asked her.

“One.”

I pushed the plate toward her. “Don’t listen. Have lots.”

“Damen!”

Girl Child gleefully snagged a second cookie.

“That’s how the world works, Girl Child. You gotta take the stuff you want.” I snatched the rest of the cookies away from her. “Mine!”

“No, mine!”

“No, mine!”

Evelyn watched this in exasperation.

“I’m surrounded by children.” She took the plate out of my hand as I held it high out of Girl Child’s reach. She snagged a cookie for herself and came inches from shoving it in her mouth, sniffed it longingly, then put it back on the plate. “Her mom’s gonna kill me. You’re a bad influence.”

“Just doin’ my job.”

The doorbell rang.

“Shoot, that’s probably her now. You gotta go.” Evelyn gestured for me to get to my feet.

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want her mom to see you and freak out,” she said. “Vico, get your backpack.”

“Words hurt, you know.”

“Yeah! Words hurt!” Girl Child had my back.

“Backpack! Now!” Evelyn pointed to a bag of scattered library books on a bench by the back door. Girl Child obeyed.

“Stay here,” Evelyn ordered me. She made her way into the living room and I heard the door open and a muffled exchange of words.

“You would not believe the day I’m having,” Vico’s mother’s voice was familiar; I tried to place it. “I needa come in. You got anything to drink? I need a fucking drink. Victoria! Get your shoes!” I heard the loud, hard pops of high heels on the wooden floor as she approached the kitchen. I considered hiding; but then she appeared in the doorway and my heart leaped into my throat.

Melody.

I stared at her dumbfounded.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she demanded. Her face was swollen and it looked like she’d been crying. Under her jacket I could see the collar of a blouse that was buttoned all the way up to her throat as if she were trying to look conservative, except it was in a bright color that no normal person would wear.

“Uhh, Evelyn’s my sister?”

“Him?!” Melody pointed at me, scowling at Evelyn as if she had betrayed her somehow.

“Yeah…?” Evelyn looked uncertainly from Melody to me and then back again, trying to figure out what she was missing. Something seemed to click in her head and she made a gagging face. “EEUURGH! God! Him?! This was the ‘rockstar’ you slept with?” She gouged the word ‘rockstar’ out of the air with her fingers.

“Harsh, Evil, harsh,” I said.

Evelyn was unrepentant. “There were details,” she said. “I can’t un-hear that—” she paused as a mental picture danced across her mind. “Oh, God, make it stop.”

Melody just glared. “You didn’t tell me he was going to be here.” She grabbed Vico by the arm and yanked her toward the door.

“She didn’t know,” I said. “I just dropped in.” I sprang to my feet and blocked her path. “You didn’t tell me you had a kid.”

 “Cuz it’s none of your goddamn business.”

“OOowww, Mamaaaa,” Girl Child whined, twisting her arm in Melody’s grasp.

“Hey—don’t be like that—it’s not her fault.”

“Go put on your shoes, Vico.” Melody gave the Girl Child a shove toward the front door and then grabbed me by the arm to march me out the back. Once outside, she pushed me down the back steps until we were eye-to-eye with each other. I stared at her, still reeling.

“Whose kid is she?”

“None of your business.”

“It’s gonna be my business real quick when baby daddy comes looking for the tool who’s porking his baby mama.”

“He’s not in the picture.” Melody dismissed this with a wave of a hand.

 “This is why you never come out,” I said, putting it together. “Why you didn’t want me to give you a ride home—why you only wanted to see me at the club—”

“I’m not gonna introduce my daughter to everybody I hook up with,” Melody said through bared teeth.

“Is that all we are? A hookup?”

“Why, you want more? You want a relationship?”

“Goddamnit, don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“Answer a question with a question. Just answer me!”

“You don’t get to tell me what to do.” She turned to go back inside the house. I grabbed her by the wrist, desperate to stop her.

“Melody, wait!” I wasn’t sure what I was doing. My feelings were suddenly tangled and agonizing. “C’mon, don’t go, please? This doesn’t have to change anything—I don’t care if you have a kid: she’s a pistol—I love her, don’t—just…give me a shot.”

I was begging. I was desperate.

I failed.

“I don’t gotta give you anything,” Melody growled. “You don’t own me.”

Then she turned on her heel and went back into the house, slamming the door in my face.

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CHAPTER 24: A*SOLUTION will go live Monday, December 6th , 2021

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CHAPTER 22: SUBURBIA

We had no fucking guitarists.

Riot Fest was two weeks away and we had no fucking guitarists.

Jojo and I were loading equipment into the Gray Area, trying to transform the derelict warehouse into someplace we could rehearse. I heaved the final road case into a corner while she worked to decompress her full drum kit from its various bags and trunks. Nearly a third of the rehearsal space was now given over to a massive array of drums, cymbals, stands, pedals, sticks, thrones, and miscellaneous percussion items including, but not limited to, a woodblock, a piece of slate shingle, a set of fantasy chimes, a jar of pennies, and a trash can lid.

Jojo opened one of the larger drum cases and was bombarded with an avalanche of t-shirts. “What the—omigod, GOREY!” she swore.

“What’d he do?”

She pulled out a tom and extracted a bale of t-shirts from inside the hollow. “He packed my drum cases full of fucking merch.” It was true; every inch was crammed with crap that could be sold: stickers, t-shirts, CDs—all no doubt swiped from the Robot Overlords while packing up our final show. She threw the fist full of t-shirts on the floor, then sighed. “I miss that fucking maniac. It’s weird without him around.”

“He’ll be back,” I said.

“How can you be sure? He said he was leaving the band, right?”

“His guitar is still here.”

“I haven’t heard from him, have you?”

“No, but we got money coming in now. Once he gets a whiff of the cash he’ll be back. Just watch.”

I was certain of this fact even if I wasn’t sure about anything else. Between the Firestone buyout and Riot Fest, it was just a matter of time before our filthy lucre lured him out of the woodwork. And if he didn’t show up by the time Riot Fest rolled around, I could always tap our guitar tech, Tedrick, to fill in for him. Tedrick had been our bassist for eight months while Kilroy was in rehab and had stood in for Gorey when he sprained his wrist trying to teach himself parkour. He’d even stood in for Tombstone a handful of times when sickness or stage fright got the better of him. As a guitarist, he had zero imagination, but he made up for it in brute-force effort and he was the person we called whenever we needed someone to patch the band back together.

Scab.

We loved him.

The bigger problem was Tombstone. We hadn’t spoken since our fight at Club Lure, in spite of my efforts to make amends. I’d called a dozen times, but the calls went straight to voicemail and the voicemails went unanswered.  No one knew where he’d gone. No one knew if he was coming back. I wasn’t even sure Riot Fest was on his radar

But Tedrick couldn’t replace both Gorey and Tombstone at the same time.

“You hear from Tombstone yet?” I asked for the millionth time.

“Still nope.”

“We have no fucking guitarists.”

“Have you talked to Marla?” Jojo asked. “If anyone knows where he is it’ll be her.”

“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to that.” The thought of dragging my ass to the suburbs to talk to Tombstone’s ex-wife ranked somewhere between a tax audit and a root canal on my personal scale of nightmares, but I was getting desperate.

I drove out to the suburbs the next day without calling first.

Marla’s house, paid for by Tombstone, was a McMansion in the northern suburbs. It was masturbatory in its grandeur: situated in a subdivision filled with barn-like palaces. Size mattered. In this neighborhood it mattered more than anything else. It didn’t just outweigh taste, it actively persecuted it and beat it into submission.

I parked the GTO on the cul-de-sac where the Tombstone Manor presided over the neighborhood like a dowager countess. A manicured lawn sloped artfully to a grand entrance where a two-story glass atrium showcased an antebellum spiral staircase. The insistent yapping of a tiny dog drew my eye to the sidewalk where a pair of neighbors eyed me with suspicion as I climbed out of the drivers’ seat. I waved, and they hustled down the sidewalk clutching their designer handbags close and hiding their gossip behind premium coffees.

I approached the front door and pressed the buzzer. Somewhere deep in the house, the bells of Westminster announced my presence. A flood of cold air poured over me as the door opened to reveal a mousy, twelve-year-old girl in patterned leggings and socked feet: Tombstone’s younger daughter, Piper. Her face lit up to see me.

“Damen!” Piper leaped toward me and wrapped her arms and legs around my body like she always had as a kid. Only she wasn’t a kid anymore. I hoped Judgy Eyes and Tiny Dog weren’t watching. I swung her around once in the most avuncular way I could manage and set her back down on the doorstep.

“Your folks around?” I asked nodding toward the vast, cool depths of the house.

Piper shook her head. Her hair was a downy brown; perfectly straight. It hung to her shoulders interrupted only by a headband with a butterfly on it. She took a Blow-Pop out of her mouth, her teeth stained red and wired with braces. “Mom’s picking up Lacey. She’s in Saturday school.” Her emphasis on ‘Saturday’ made it clear she meant ‘remedial’.

“Not you, though.”

“No. I get straight A’s,” Piper stepped back. “You wanna come in? They’ll be right back.”

I stepped into the house and Piper closed the door behind me with a vacuum-like thwip that sealed out the Midwestern summer. I looked around for some sign that Tombstone might be in residence. There was none. Humans didn’t live here. Everything gleamed with newness like it had just been taken out of its plastic wrap. The walls of the massive entryway were lined with framed photographs of the girls under a florid inscription that read Live, Laugh, Love! in gold lettering. The air smelled like potpourri.

“What about your dad? He around?” I asked, following Piper into the kitchen and opening the fridge to see if there was anything worth eating. There wasn’t.

“Mom kicked Dad out again.” Piper pulled the Blow-Pop out of her cheek and looked sad. “I’m not really ‘sposed to talk about it cuz it’s ‘Family Business’.”

“Your mom tell you that?”

“Did Mom tell her what?” Marla’s voice pierced the kitchen as she let herself in through the garage door. She had a monogrammed handbag over one shoulder and an earth-friendly tote in each hand. Seeing me, she squealed and clopped forward in kitten heels to wrap both manicured arms around my neck.

“Daymeeeeee! How the heck’ve you been, honey?!” She pushed me away and smoothed her hair, preening for my benefit. Everything about her was conspicuously expensive: her highlights, her veneers, her tan, but she came from the same brackish end of the gene pool as Tombstone, and no amount of money was ever going to wash the hick out of her. Behind her, Lacey wafted in the door and glanced up from her new iPhone long enough to roll her eyes.

Marla began to put away the groceries in a dervish of movement that seemed to require an extraordinary amount of bending and reaching. “If you’re looking for TJ, he’s not here,” she purred, bending at the waist to put a bottle of vanilla flavored vodka into a freezer drawer. “He is out of the picture.”

“Mom kicked him out last week,” Lacey supplied in a sardonic monotone without looking up from her phone. “She says if he’s going to cut her off from her payments then she’s going to cut him off from us.” She snapped her gum with a pointed glare in Marla’s direction.

“You are grounded until next month, young lady. Give me that phone.”

Lacey’s mouth dropped open as Marla snatched the iPhone out of her hands and dropped it into her purse.

“Mo-om!”

“Don’t ‘Mom’ me, princess, or I’ll take the car too and you can take the bus to school.”

Lacey stomped out of the room in a roar of frustration punctuated with the salute of a slamming door. It was Marla’s turn to roll her eyes.

“Girls,” she said. “Never have children, but especially never have girls.” She caught a glimpse of Piper staring at her feet trying to make herself as small as possible and relented. She went over to her and smoothed her hair. “Not you, angel, you’re just fine.” She kissed the part in Piper’s mousey hair. Then she sniffed. “Is that cherry I smell?”

Piper tensed as Marla snatched up the Blow-Pop wrapper, which had been partly hidden under the edge of one of the shopping bags.

“Piper!”

“I’m sorry!”

“What did I tell you about having candy in the house!”

“I’m sorry!!” Piper was nearly in tears.

“It’s my fault,” I cut in. “I brought it as a present. I didn’t know it was off-limits.”

Piper stared at me wide-eyed, then looked at her mother as Marla looked at her for confirmation. She gulped and nodded.

“You should have said no,” Marla told her.

“C’mon, Marla, you know how hard it is to say ‘no’ to me.” I snagged the wrapper out of her hand and made her grab for it until we were chest to chest and then waltzed her around the kitchen, ending with a dip that made her shriek with laughter. “I’m a bad, bad influence.”

“Yes, you are.” Marla was suddenly all eyelashes. I felt a surge of loathing. There was easy, and then there was Marla. I would’ve had more sympathy for her if she wasn’t the kind of woman who dangled her sexuality like bait for the sheer delight of holding it out of reach.

“I couldn’t come to town and not stop in, could I?”

“No…”

“To see my…biggest…fan…” I tapped the tip of her nose with my finger, and then pushed past her to sweep Piper up off the floor and twirl her around. Marla staggered slightly as her gambit lost traction.

“You’re coming to our show, right?” I asked Piper after I set her feet back on the ground.

“I don’t know—Mom? Can I?”

“Show? What show?” Marla demanded.

“I mean, it’s just Riot Fest. It’s not a big deal,” I sighed like this was a burden. “But, I mean, money is money amiright? Surprised Tombstone didn’t mention it. It just came up last minute, though—when did you last talk to him?”

“Yesterday,” Marla said. She drummed her fingers on the countertop. The hollow tapping of her acrylic nails sounded like a dog’s claws on a tile floor. “He came by to pick up Rita.”

Shit.

Rita was Tombstone’s session guitar: a ‘69 Pink Paisley Telecaster that he’d acquired in a Devil-Went-Down-To-Georgia style guitar duel against Keith Richards. Rita was his most prized possession. He never took her on stage—certainly not for an outdoor festival. If Tombstone knew about Riot Fest, he would have taken his stage guitar: the Blackjack, instead.

“TJ didn’t say anything about a show,” Marla was saying. I arranged my face into an indifferent expression. “He said he was going to get session work. Steady work—no more of this feast or famine bullshit.”

“Well, you know how it goes—gotta strike while the iron’s hot.”

I haven’t heard anything about you playing Riot Fest either,” she persisted.

“Well, you’ve been out of the scene for a while now,” I said, lobbing the statement over my shoulder like a grenade. Marla prided herself on knowing All Things Band Related and to suggest otherwise was heresy of the worst kind.

“What?!” she screeched.

“You’re coming to Riot, though, right? I can probably get you a pass…”

“Shut up!” Marla liked to think she was the kind of girl who could flirt her way in any door, and it might have been true once, back when she was nineteen and willing to get a little handsy with security, but she was a suburban soccer-mom now. The only way she’d get backstage now would be by demanding to speak to a manager.

“Heyyy, all I meant was you’re all respectable now,” I pulled her in close, toying with the wedding band hanging around her neck on a gold chain. Her breath hitched at the sudden nearness. “I mean, look at you. When did you get so…uptight?”

“Uptight?!”

“Here in your pretty little dollhouse: suburbs, soccer games, organic groceries? C’mon seize the day while you’re still young…ish.” If I negged her any harder she was going to end up in therapy. I leaned in until I could whisper in her ear and played the last card I had in my deck: “Forget Tombstone—come for me. Make him regret it.”

I let the unspoken promise hang in the air between us for a minute. Marla bit her lip. My work was finished: she was hooked—wild horses wouldn’t keep her from the show now. I stood up sharply, snapping reality back into focus.

“Welp, tell TJ I said hi,” I said, then turned to Piper. “C’mon, kiddo, walk me out.”

Piper accompanied me to the driveway where Lacey lounged against the front fender of the Goat. I got the impression she’d been waiting for me. Unlike Piper, Lacey was a sweet sixteen Go-Straight-To-Jail-Card and she knew it. She sized me up and tucked a stray strand of hair behind one ear. Her shirt was loose—some kind of jersey so thin it showed as much as it covered. I opened the driver’s side door and leaned on it—keeping it between us.

“You two coming to the show?” I asked. If Tombstone was really as OUT of the picture as Marla wanted me to believe, there was a chance that even she wouldn’t be enough to get him to rise to the bait. But his girls were something else.

“Mom would never let us,” Piper said.

“So, don’t tell her. Sneak out, then sneak back in. She’ll never know. Your sister looks like a pro if ever I saw one.” I nodded toward Lacey whose eyes twitched toward a trellis running down the side of the house. “Yeah, you look like you’ve got a system.”

“You sneak out?!” This was news to Piper. “How? Where do you go?”

“A lady never reveals her secrets.” Lacey looked annoyed that I’d clocked her. “Is Dad really going to be there?”

“It wouldn’t be much of a show without a guitarist.” That much was true: if he didn’t show we were going to end up on stage with nothing but our dicks in our hands. Fuck.

“It wasn’t cuz of money, you know,” she said.

“What wasn’t?”

“Mom kicking Dad out. It wasn’t cuz of money—Dad already paid the September support check. He bought me the new iPhone.”

“Yeah? What was it about?”

“I dunno. Relationship stuff, I guess. They had a huge fight about it,” Lacey shrugged. The collar of her shirt slid off her shoulder. “Mom’s not ‘sposed to ask what Dad does on the road, but then he found out she was seeing a guy from her tennis club and he got mad…I dunno…It’s not like they’re married or anything.”

“It’s complicated, huh.”

“Mom won’t let us see him anymore. She’s such a bitch—I hate her.”

 “She can’t stop you from seeing him on stage, right?” I gave her ponytail a tug. “C’mon down to the show. I’ll sneak you in.” Said the thirty-year-old man to two underage girls. I felt creepy just saying it. “You’re already grounded. You know your mom is gonna take away the car anyway; make it worth it.”

“I dunno…” Piper looked doubtful, but then she was the smart one. Lacey didn’t need to be asked twice.

“We’ll be there,” she said.

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CHAPTER 23: THE GIRL CHILD will go live Monday, November 29th, 2021

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CHAPTER 21: THE GRAY AREA

“What the hell’s all this?” I asked.

The front porch of the Cursèd Place was buried waist-deep in cases of beer and bales of toilet paper. Kilroy slouched indolently on a rickety lawn chair behind the smoldering chimney of his bong. His attention meandered back and forth between a delivery man wheeling another dolly full of beer toward the steps and a chubby brown kid carrying them one by one into the house.

“Gift from Judge.”

“Beer and toilet paper?”

“He asked if we needed anything, so I said we could use some beer and toilet paper. I figured we’d get a twenty-four pack of Keystone and a few rolls of whatever they use at the club, but…” He gestured toward the heaps of provisions.

“Ax and ye shall receive,” I said.

“I’ll say.”

The brown kid emerged from the house and picked up another case. His t-shirt was starting to soak through with sweat from the effort.

“Who’s the kid?” I asked.

“Dunno.” Kilroy took another hit off the bong and let the smoke seep out of his mouth and nose. “I found him in the pantry. I think he’s been living there.”

“The pantry?”

“That big closet off the kitchen—”

“I know what a pantry is.”

“I was looking for a place to stash all this shit, an’ he was just in there chillin.’ Had a little, you know, blanket fort. Not sure where he got the blankets from—they’re not ours. I felt bad I hadda kick him out—told him if he loaded in all these boxes he could crash on the couch.”

I wondered what trail of Faygo and Doritos had led this kid to our doorstep and decided it didn’t matter: he was here now and there was no getting rid of him.

We had a barnacle.

Our luck must’ve been changing; every band of a certain size developed an ecosystem of hangers-on around the edges: groupies and fanatics and cold-eyed opportunists who would happily eat shit just to get a piece of the action. We called ours The Legion. They tended, on the whole, to be long on mania and rather sparing of intellect. As far as I could tell, this kid was no exception.

“He got a name?”

“He told me, but I forgot.” Names had never been Kilroy’s strong suit.

The delivery guy climbed the steps and handed me a clipboard. “You sign this?” he asked. I expected to see a delivery slip, but instead it was a photograph of my face.

“You need a delivery slip signed too?” I asked.

The delivery guy shook his head. “This all’s fallin’ off the truck, ‘f you know what I’m sayin’.” He brushed a finger off the side of his nose. “Roads ‘round here are real bad.”

Chicago.

“It’s a goddamn travesty,” I agreed, signing the autograph and slapping the pen down on the clipboard. “Be a shame if a bus full of nubile college coeds broke down one of these days.”

“Wouldn’t it, though?” the delivery guy said with a grin. “You need anything else from the Golden Goose, just say the word.”

“Got it.”

 The delivery guy slapped me on the back then headed for his truck without a backward glance.

“Never a dull goddamn moment,” I muttered, prying open the cardboard of one of the boxes to pull out a bottle of beer: Goose Island. I laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Kilroy wanted to know.

I tossed him the bottle.

“Goose Island,” I said. “From Judge. The Golden Goose.”

Kilroy stared at the bottle in his hand, still trying to understand the joke. The pantry kid materialized at his side and levered off the cap with a bottle opener from his pocket.

“Ha! That’s service, dude,” Kilroy grinned.

I pulled a second bottle out of the crate and held it out to the kid. “Beer me, kid!”

The kid sprang forward to pop off the cap.

“I like this kid,” Kilroy said. “Let’s keep him.”

*          *          *          *

None of us could remember the pantry kid’s name, so we called him ‘Goose’. We didn’t have the heart to kick him out, so he lived in the odd corners of the house like a small, helpful poltergeist.

“Goose! Laundry!”

“Goose! Barf bucket!”

“Goose! Toilet plunger!”

Mostly, he followed me around like a worshipful shadow doing anything I asked him to and a lot of things I didn’t. He was one of those under-loved kids so desperately eager to please it made him a menace. Whenever I needed something, I would send Goose to fetch it, and sometimes I’d send him into the city to try to find a Major Seventh Diminisher or a can of Distortion just to get him out of the house.

“Quit staring at me, Goose, you’re creeping me out.” I didn’t have to look at him to know he was staring at me with unblinking adoration from the back seat of the GTO. Judge and I were canvassing the city for a rehearsal space and Goose had tagged along.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, tearing his eyes away from the back of my neck.

“This is it,” Judge said. “Pull over.”

I pulled the GTO to the curb alongside a building that looked like it might once have been a complex of warehouses. It stood on the corner of a six-point intersection like the prow of a tanker built out of brick and plywood. The entire, triangular block had been copiously painted the same uniform gray and then abandoned to crumble into flaking disrepair.

If ever there were a place that looked like it housed a nest of vampires, this was it.

I glanced at Goose in the mirror. He was staring at me again.

“Goose, wait in the car.”

*          *          *          *

“You can work here,” Judge said as he led the way down a long, jagged hallway into a cavernous space lit by an ancient string of incandescent bulbs. His voice echoed off the high vault of the ceiling where the light failed to reach the corners. “Usta be a packing house. Mostly gets used for storage now.”

I clapped my hands to listen to the acoustics. The knap echoed off the vault of a high ceiling lost somewhere in the gloom overhead. We would need to install some baffles to keep our sound from turning to mud. Carpets. Sound foam. I made a mental list.

“Neighbors gonna complain about the noise?” I asked.

“It’s zoned mixed-use.”

“It’ll do.” The wooden floorboards creaked under my weight and I looked down. Something gleamed between the planks and I kicked it with the toe of my boot until it skittered across the floor: the brass casing for a 9mm. Judge stooped with a piece of Kleenex to pick it up and tuck it in his pocket.

“Needs to be cleaned,” he said in a tone that said don’t ask questions. “I can get a crew in. But it’s secure—Your equipment’ll be safe here.”

“Yeah, are we going to be safe here?” I was beginning to think Judge might be tapped into the part of the Chicago machine that would find it useful to just-so-happen to have a mixed-use space where no one could hear you scream.

 “Just don’t go poking around behind locked doors and you’ll never have to lie in court.”

I did a circuit of the room, feeling out the dim shadows of the corners, not really certain I wanted to know what was in them. Sam hadn’t thrown any flags on the paperwork, but I still didn’t trust Judge any farther than I could spit into the wind. Even so, I had to admit he was doing a good job of taking care of us. Our cupboards were full. The house was clean. The lawn was mowed. None of us were sleeping on mattresses likely to give us lice or tetanus anymore. Kilroy was flush with weed and tofu. Jojo abounded in clothes and pills. I’d even come home one day to find the house full of the DePaul girls’ volleyball team and a Costco-sized carton of condoms with my name on it. Judge hadn’t attached a note, but he’d sure as hell sent a message: ax and ye shall receive.

“What’re the chances of getting a piano?” I axed.

“You want something specific?”

“Anything made of wood and wire. And pedals. I’m sick of playing a keyboard.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” He watched me explore the space for a moment in silence and then said: “You comin’ by the club this week? Melody’s been askin’ about you.”

My heart leaped at the sound of her name. Excitement flooded my body in a tidal wave. I did my best to play it cool.

“Yeah? What’d she say?”

“Said the two of you got real friendly after Lollapalooza.”

“Yeah, we hooked up.”

 “Said she hasn’t heard from you since.”

 “She didn’t give me her number—told me to come to the club,” I said. “She wasn’t working the night I went.”

Judge stared me down for a minute through squinted eyes. “You gonna see her again?” he asked. I realized this was something personal to him. Melody meant something to him. I wondered if he meant anything to her.

“I want to, but that’s kinda up to her.”

Judge nodded as if this met his approval. “Just don’t fuck with her,” he said. “We clear?” “We’re clear.”

“All good, then.” Judge’s phone buzzed and he glanced at the screen. “I gotta handle this, we done here?”

“Yeah, we’ll take it,” I said. “When can we move in?”

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CHAPTER 22: SUBURBIA will go live Monday, November 22nd , 2021

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CHAPTER 20: SEPARATING

On the night of Mom’s family dinner, I arrived at the Big House late, as usual, but I still got there before Michael or Edward. As if she had sensed my arrival, Mom opened the front door while I was still climbing the steps, saving me from the dilemma of deciding whether to knock or to just walk in.

“You’re late.”

“I’m Damen.”

“Don’t be smart,” Mom said. She stepped aside to let me pass, but her eyes flickered over my shoulders to scan the street. “I want you on your best behavior tonight. This is important.”

“What’s this all about, anyway?”

“You will see.” Mom deposited me in the front room where Evelyn sat with Dearie. The two of them looked up when I came in. Mom disappeared into the kitchen.

“Damen!” Evelyn jumped up as if she hadn’t seen me in years and wrapped her arms around my neck in a hug. I staggered back in surprise. “I haven’t seen you in months.” She glanced in Dearie’s direction with pleading eyes that said don’t fuck this up for me.

 “Oh, hey, what’s new?”

“Evelyn was telling me about the wedding planning,” Dearie said. “Will you join us?”

“That sounds like Hell on Earth.” I went to the piano and slid onto the bench. Safe.

“You’re not wrong,” Evelyn muttered, sinking back onto the couch beside Dearie.

“You pick a date?”

“June sixteenth. We’re having it at the Gardens—of course.”

“How lovely,” Dearie murmured. “Don’t register for china. I’ll be giving you mine. Both the Wedgewood and the Limoges—”

“Dearie! That’s too much!”

“Please, I insist. I don’t use it. What good is heirloom china if it’s not passed on?”

China patterns and wedding plans: my brain was going numb by the second. “Where’s Edward?” I asked to change the subject.

“On his way with Dad,” Evelyn said. “He got a job at Metron—did you hear?”

“Some kind of engineering?”

“Physical engineering.”

“In other words, a janitor.”

“Don’t be unkind,” Dearie scolded.

“Excuse me, custodian.”

“Blue…”

“Yeah, don’t be a Blue-Meanie,” Evelyn sided with Dearie. “They put him in charge of maintaining all their worksites. Apparently, he’s really good at it. But I mean, it’s Edward, so…”

“It’s Edward what?” Edward appeared in the doorway at the sound of his name. He was wearing a work jacket with the Metron logo stitched on the breast pocket over his heart and an ID tag pinned to the lapel. Somehow, he even made a janitor’s uniform look good.

“You made it!” Dearie turned in her seat without standing up. “Is your father with you?”

Edward bobbed his head in a nod. “He’s finishing a phone call. He’ll be in in a minute.”

“Mom’s pissed,” Evelyn told him.

“Cuz why?”

“Well, you’re forty minutes late, for starters.”

“We are?” He took out his phone and stared at it in consternation, struggling to read the time, which was written in large numbers on a digital display. I could read it from across the room, but to Edward it might as well have been Sanskrit. He gave up and tapped a button:

“Six Forty-Two Pee Em.”

“Dangit.” He looked embarrassed. “We were looking at the new site down south. Something about zoning?” His eyes went distant and his head tilted slightly, angling toward the back of the house. “Ahh—he’s coming.”

We all listened. Nothing.

“I don’t hear—”

Edward held up a finger. Wait. He pointed toward the back of the house. Now. From the depths of the house came the sound of a door opening and Michael’s heavy, even footsteps on a wooden floor—punctuated by the loud poc of his cane.

“I’m here,” he announced. The door closed behind him. The house suddenly felt a lot smaller now with Michael in it. I forced myself to take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Would you help me to the table?” Grandma Dearie held out a hand to me from where she sat. I looked at her, surprised.

“I can—” Edward started to cross to her. Dearie waved him away.

“Don’t trouble yourself: Damen will help me.”

 Chosen.

I felt a vicious surge of satisfaction as Edward stepped back with blatant confusion showing on his face. Getting to my feet, I helped Dearie up. She hooked her hand in my elbow and patted my arm and together we walked to the dining room at a measured pace. Mom was already there, bringing in a basket of bread rolls and a pitcher of water.

“Do you want wine?” she asked Dearie.

“Water is fine, thank you.”

Mom poured water into Dearie’s glass and then filled mine without asking. Her sharp look said everything: Keep your wits about you. Keep your mouth shut.

I pulled out Dearie’s chair for her and helped her to settle in at the head of the table as everybody else filtered in. Edward sat by her right hand and I took the chair by her left. Evelyn and Mom sat on either side of Michael, who seemed distracted.

“Do you know what this is about?” Evelyn murmured to me in an undertone.

I shrugged. “Mom’s got something to say.”

I felt Dearie take my hand on one side and Evelyn held out her hand to me on the other: family prayer. I’d forgotten about this. Squirming in my seat, I glanced at Mom and then at Michael and saw his face darken. Evelyn made the decision for me. She took my hand and closed the circle, giving my fingers a squeeze: just sit tight.

Be present at our table, Lord, be here and everywhere adored…

The family chorused the words in unison. I stayed silent. Across from me, Edward had his eyes closed. He said every word like he meant it. Evelyn’s eyes were downcast. Mom’s eyes were on me.

“Amen,” Michael said, The Final Word.

“Amen,” everyone else responded.

Dearie and Evelyn released my hands and there was a general clatter of utensils as napkins were extracted and serving dishes passed around the table. I shoved a dinner roll in my mouth—the only way I could think to keep silent.

“So, uh, what’s the big…announcement?” Evelyn ventured once everyone had been served and small talk had danced around the elephant in the room.

Mom glanced at Michael whose face tightened. He put down his fork, wiped his mouth with his napkin and threw it down on the table beside his plate like he’d lost his appetite. Bad news, then. Something I’d done? I felt a twinge of paranoia—he hadn’t spoken to me all evening, but Mom had been pretty damn insistent I come. Her gaze brushed over me and I tensed, but it didn’t settle. She rested a hand on Michael’s wrist, but Michael curled his fingers into a fist and tucked it away in his lap.

“Your father and I,” she said, addressing the room as a whole, “are getting separated.”

Time ground to a halt as the words sank in. I stopped mid-chew as something dark and gleeful woke up inside me.

“Good,” I said, “it’s about damn time.”

“Damen.” Evelyn tried to catch my wrist but I pulled away.

“No—good.” I looked around the table, daring any one of them to stop me. Edward was still in shock, mouth working as he struggled to grind the thought down into Edward-sized pieces. Evelyn looked stricken and was holding back tears. Dearie just looked…disappointed. “They’re not happy. They haven’t been happy in years—at least, Mom hasn’t.”

Mom raised her eyebrow at me. “That’s enough, Damen.”

“No, it’s not enough,” I snapped. “It’s been this one, long play-pretend sham for years: ‘let’s all pretend we’re one big happy fucking family.’”

“Language, please,” Dearie admonished. “We know you’re upset. We’re all upset—”

“I’m not upset,” I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Dad, why?” Edward finally caught up with the conversation.

Michael pressed his lips together and for the tiniest glimmer of a moment his eyes went deep with feeling. I wanted to leap out of my seat and shake him and scream in his face: Say something! Show some real fucking emotion for a change! Don’t let her go! But then his face went smooth again, closing all of us out from any meaningful inner self, and my sympathy evaporated.

“I don’t have a good answer for that.”

A laugh escaped me before I could stop it. I locked my jaws together and held up my hands, not saying anything, as Mom’s glance knifed over me again.

“Have you really not been happy? Is Damen right?” Edward turned to Mom now, still stringing ideas together with excruciating slowness. Next, he would take us all down to our pieces and lay us out on his workbench until he could figure out how to put us together again.

“There comes a time when things just need to change. I recently…gained some perspective I need to consider the implications of.”

“And you have to get separated from Dad to do that?” Evelyn was only barely holding back her anger with tears and a red face: as much of a Daddy’s Girl as I was a Mama’s Boy.

“I need space. I will not be my best self for a while.”

Michael’s phone vibrated in his pocket, interrupting her. I saw Mom’s jaw lock as he took it out and glanced at the caller. He silenced it with a swipe and set it down on the table face down. His eyes flickered back to the conversation, glancing furtively at the portrait of Grandpa Enoch hanging over Dearie’s shoulder.

“I think it’s safe to say we have…different priorities at the moment,” Mom said, her tone struggling to disguise bitter annoyance.

The phone rang again. The tension in the room hardened into concrete. Michael looked at the phone without moving and Mom’s glower dared him to answer it: to just try it. We all sat in silence, waiting to see what he’d do. At last, he stood and picked it up.

“Excuse me.”

Mom sprang to her feet, teeth bared. “Michael, don’t you dare!”

But Michael was already walking away, answering the call as he crossed out of the room. I saw Mom reach for his plate. The gesture stirred up a half-forgotten memory from my childhood: Mom throwing a dinner plate at the kitchen wall in a fit of anger. I couldn’t remember what had upset her or why, only the explosion of noodles and tomato sauce and Evelyn as a baby, screaming, and Edward as a toddler, crying, and me as a five-year-old picking up my own plate to join in, laughing with glee. Snapping back to reality, I suddenly realized where I got my tendency toward explosive outbursts from. But this explosive outburst was going to involve one of Grandma Dearie’s good plates—one she’d promised to Evelyn. One that couldn’t be replaced.

I leaped to my feet, knocking over my chair.

“Good!” I screamed after Michael. “Fuck you, Michael! Fuck you and the horse you fucking rode in on!”

I felt, more than saw, Mom’s attention turn to me.

“You watch your language,” she hissed. She let go of the plate, letting it drop on the tabletop with a thud and closed her hand around my arm instead. I tried to shake her off, but not too hard—just hard enough to make her hold on.

“I’m fine,” I insisted. If I was going to make a scene, I might as well make it a showstopper.

“Come with me,” she commanded in a low, tight voice, dragging me toward the kitchen. She waited until the dining room door had swung shut behind us before releasing me.

“I thought I told you to be on your best behavior,” she snapped when we were alone. “I’m very disappointed in you.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, did you think the fallout from that little bombshell was going to be pretty?” I paced around the kitchen, incapable of staying still. “What took you so long—we could’ve been free of him years ago.”

Mom crossed her arms, “What makes you think I want to be free of him?” she challenged, catching me up short.

“Don’t you?”

“I love Michael very much.”

“That doesn’t answer the question.”

“I need space to consider my identity,” Mom said. Consider her identity. Not to ‘find herself’.

“Uh-huh. People don’t get separated after thirty years of marriage just because they’re feeling a little existential.”

“Twenty-eight years. And yes, it is actually quite common.”

“Whatever—my whole life.”

Mom absorbed this—her mind going back somewhere in her memory where I couldn’t follow.

“You could be free,” I pressed. “You could be happy again.”

“Who says I’m not happy?”

“Puh-leez. Living this… life under glass? Watching the world go by without touching it? Everything’s straight lines and hard edges here.” I was getting worked up again. All my memories of her laughing were from when I was a kid—soft and yellow. There were the stormy moments of plate throwing, but there had been sun too: not this faceless, overcast gray she’d become. I remembered seeing her after Grandpa Enoch died—numb and flat-faced. I remembered her arms around me at the funeral: she’d been trying to comfort me but her hug was so cold it made me ache. I never saw her laugh after that. It was like she’d transformed into some kind of mechanical animal: relentless and efficient and unfeeling. I’d done everything I could think of to break free until the only thing left to do was to leave or be crushed.

Mom’s eyes were bright—were those tears? A flush rose up on her neck from beneath her collar, and she swallowed hard. The unfamiliar rawness on her face twisted in my guts until it hurt too much to look at her. I pushed through the servant door at the back of the kitchen and fled up the service stairs in search of something familiar in a world turned upside-down.

I took the steps two at a time until I reached the dim, elegant hallway on the second level, but I didn’t stop. The staircase to the third-floor was hidden in a closet. I wrenched the door open and kept climbing. The third-floor hallway was plain—the wooden floor was dull and unpolished. The same threadbare floor runner curled up around my foot, tripping me the way it always had. I kicked it flat. My old room was at the far end, under a sloping eve. The door was still plastered with DO NOT ENTER stickers and police tape and band posters from the nineties: Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, Smashing Pumpkins.

Inside, the room was undisturbed except for an accumulation of filing boxes occupying the bed, a bin of Christmas decorations, and a collection of bags earmarked for AmVets: the detritus of ordinary life.

In one corner stood a battered upright piano that had belonged to Mom’s mom, Grandma Rose. Mom had inherited it after she died; an heirloom too broken to play and too sentimental to get rid of. I couldn’t imagine the machinations it had taken to get it up to the third-floor, but now it was there, and that was where it was going to stay; along with all the other broken memories too heavy to carry around.

The lid was furred with dust. I wiped a hand across it, brushing away a handful of linty fluff before lifting the lid and reaching inside. The soundboard was cracked right down middle C, and I felt around for the narrow gap where I stashed the things I wanted to keep secret: a baggie of decrepit weed, now mostly dust, Edward’s favorite collectible baseball card, and a narrow strip of photo booth photographs from Great America. I pulled this out and took it into the light to look at it: me and Mom, smiling and goofing off.

Suddenly I was twelve again, thrown backward in time to middle school. It was the third or fourth day of standardized testing, and I’d already finished bubbling in mind-numbing answers on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. My name was called over the PA system and I went to the principal’s office to find Mom there, signing me out for the rest of the day.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“Anywhere that’s not here.”

We drove north to Gurnee and went to Great America for Fright Fest. We rode on the Shockwave and ate hot dogs and junk food. I remembered squeezing into the photo booth with her, waiting for the flash of the camera, trying to think of faces to pull.

Afterwards, as the sun was setting, we got food at a diner called The Phoenix just over the Wisconsin border. Then something happened: Sam appeared like he knew where to find us and Mom went outside to meet him. I watched them talk through the diner’s grimy windows. I couldn’t hear what they said, but I thought they might be talking about me. Sam kept looking in my direction and every time he did Mom got a little quieter and more distant. I realized something wasn’t right.

“Can we go home now?” I asked when she came back inside.

“C’mon, aren’t we having fun?” She ordered a coffee and filled it with liquor—filling it more and more every time the mug started to get empty until I could smell it through her skin.

“Yeah, but…”

We could leave this place,” she’d said. “Would you come with me if I left? I packed a bag for you. We could go right now: to the airport in Milwaukee and then just—fly, fly away…”

“Where would we go?”

“Someplace warm. California maybe?”

“What about Edward and Evie? What about Dad?”

“What about them?!” Mom banged her hand down on the table making the silverware rattle and I jumped. “Damnit! That’s all there is. That’s is all there will ever be. Husband. Kids. Husband. Kids. God-damnit. Fuck.” It was the first and last time I ever heard her curse. She was laughing and crying at the same time. And then she got up to go to the bathroom and I begged the diner owner to let me use their phone.

“Where are you, son?” Michael asked when he answered.

I told him about Great America and about the diner and about Sam. I told him about the airport and California and the liquor.

“Sit tight,” he said.

“Sit tight,” said sheriff who appeared fifteen minutes later like magic. He took away Mom’s keys and locked the two of us up in the back seat of his car but didn’t take us anywhere. Instead, he went inside the diner and ordered a coffee.

Mom was drunk now. She leaned her head against the fogged glass of the window and stared out into the darkness. Her anger sat between us, filling the cabin of the car.

“You called Michael, didn’t you,” she said.

I nodded.

“You don’t know what you’ve done.” Tears rolled down her cheeks but I didn’t know why. “You don’t know what you’ve done.”

I never did figure out what she meant. Michael came to pick us up, still dressed in his police uniform. He brought us home and I could hear him and Mom talking late into the night in low urgent voices as their footsteps circled and circled and circled below my bedroom.

Everything changed after that: Mom disappeared for a month and the rest of us went to live at the Big House while she was gone. Then the car accident happened, killing Grandpa Enoch and putting Dearie and Edward in the hospital, and when Mom came back, she was like a ghost haunting her own life.

What had I done?

I snapped back to the present and stowed the photos in my wallet, hiding the memory in my pocket. Casting a final glance around the old room, I slipped out and closed the door behind me. Then I crept down the back stairs and left the house without saying goodbye.

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